In Search of Vita’s vision…

As Trust ownership of Sissinghurst approaches its first half a century and with my arrival as Head Gardener in May 2013, it has provided a timely opportunity to consider how closely the design and plant content in the garden reflects the original intentions and distinctive character of its creators Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West.

Aerial photo of Sissinghurst.

From the early years of the garden becoming a National Trust property interventions were made to enable a greater footfall, such as the implementation of hard surface paths where once there was grass. A programme of ‘tidying’ and a need to facilitate the many visitors has resulted in an erosion of the distinctive character of the garden particularly in areas to the periphery of the garden.

Sissinghurst has become one of the most documented and scrutinised twentieth century gardens in the world during the relatively short period of time since its creation. This course was set when Harold began recording in detail the development of the garden in his diaries from 1930 and Vita was commissioned to write a weekly gardening column in The Observer newspaper.

When Harold and Vita began to make a garden at Sissinghurst in 1930, it was Harold’s methodical approach and keen eye for architectural form that imposed a structure to the misaligned remains of a lost Tudor manor. This provided the backbone to Vita’s experimental planting schemes eventually leading to the development of her unique style that would influence and inspire future gardens on an international scale. As the garden reached a post-war maturity in the late fifties, it entered a further phase of development when Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger were employed by Vita and Harold as joint Head Gardeners. Their disciplined training in horticulture under Miss Havergal at Waterperry in Oxfordshire was stark contrast to Vita’s relaxed gardening style.

Pam and Sybille’s tenure became the most significant period in the gardens history post Harold and Vita’s ownership and to a greater extent is responsible for how the gardens are presented today, an influence that continued through successive Head Gardeners. (There have been two Head Gardeners to follow since Pam and Sybille’s retirement, Sarah Cook and Alexis Datta).

In 2011 the property commissioned a Conservation Management Plan. This work referenced the many writings and publications to date about Sissinghurst and collated an understanding of the place based on these in a single document. It highlights a number of gaps in knowledge in particular around planting detail and how Vita developed her garden ideas. It also provides an opportunity to assess how closely the garden reflects the ambitions and vision that Harold and in particular Vita had and how far these may have drifted from their original intentions over time.

This year I commissioned Monique Wolak to undertake detailed research for the major garden areas including the areas periphery to the garden. I also invited Dan Pearson to assist with the garden as an honorary garden advisor, contributing ideas and thoughts on planting and design considerations.

The results from this close study of the garden will contribute to a five-year programme to re-capture the distinctive qualities of Vita and Harold’s Sissinghurst and enable the following objectives to be delivered:

  • A distinctive garden that captures the spirit of its creators and succeeding Head Gardeners in its planting style whilst continuing to develop and change.
  • A garden that will engage the interest of and provide an exceptional experience for visitors.
  • A reversal of negative interventions that have occurred over time.
  • The garden that retains the national and international significance of a twentieth century garden that continues to influence and inspire gardens of the future.
  • A garden that acts as a training ground and inspiration for gardeners of the future.

Troy Smith (Head Gardener)



14 thoughts on “In Search of Vita’s vision…

  1. It is always interesting to read about how a garden that is so well know for it’s history is managed. I have just finished reading a book about Norah Lindsay who was a garden designer primarily in the 30s, 40s and 50s and who was friends with Vita and advised her on Sissinghurst. Norah’s style was very much lots of hedging, box edging and topiary in filled with herbaceous planting with tone on tone colour pallet. Your research had probably thrown this up already but I thought it might be of interest.


  2. Hi Troy
    I noticed today a number of beech hedges on the perimeter and behind the Pyrus salicifolia pendular have been reduced in size. Is this part of your master plan to open up areas and merge the garden with the surrounding countryside? I last visited in Sept 2013 and have noticed a few changes. I have enjoyed reading your blog and will be interested in following your progress.


    • Hi Shenagh, Thanks for reading our blog and your comments. Yes we would like to open the space below the White Garden for visitors (Vita had this little area as a phlox garden) and so we have pruned the hedge hard to encorage it to thicken up at the base, but not allow it to become so tall obscuring the views to the wonderful weald. Troy


  3. It appears as though the garden during Vita and Harold’s had a very different feel to it than it does today. More romantic,full blown and relaxed. I guess more personal, with an air of warmth and envelopment. Something truly of its time. Troy I look forward with anticipation from afar what you will bring next to the garden.


  4. Troy: I am working on Nancy Lindsay’s Rose List. My impression is that she supplied plants to Sissinghurst and I have found quotations from her letters to Vita. Is the correspondence still preserved there? It ought to help you with the replanting — I understand that you are trying to restore the original design. Anyway, the List will be offered by the Texas Rose Rustlers on their website. I have got through the first 101 entries and the preface!


    • Thank you very much for keeping us updated on your work about Norah Lindsay. I’m not sure if we still have any letters from Norah at Sissinghurst but I will try to make some enquiries. It will be very interesting to see your list when it is published. Helen


  5. Greetings to all from New York. I want you to know how much I enjoy all of your informative blog posts. I especially liked the one that introduced all the gardeners. I was happy to see you all again, reminding me of my delightful week at Sissinghurst last February. I hope that all of your hard work has made for an abundant and successful growing season. I learned so very much and enjoyed each of you. Thanks again and best wishes!
    Ann Perkowski
    p.s. I’ve now amassed a small collection of books on Sissinghurst!


    • Hi Ann, great to hear from you and thanks for reading our blog. Just wanted to let you know that the roses we pruned together in the White Garden last February flowered very well and looked lovely. (They were R. ‘Iceberg’ in the small bed). Hope you had a great summer in the US. Helen


  6. Fascinating reading (and looking, for you use some photos I have never seen before). Thank you Troy! I am intrigued by your mention of a visit to Norah Lindsey’s garden – Is that Sutton Courtenay? I was under the impression that almost nothing remains of her garden. Has it been restored and recreated?


    • Hi Jack, the garden we visited last year was Haseley court, the home of the late Nancy Lancaster. We know that Nancy and Norah Lindsay were friends and that Norah helped her design the gardens at Ditchley Park and Kelmarsh Hall. As for Sutton Courtenay, it is now privately owned and not open to the public although it would be so interesting to have a look around. Helen


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